The Safe Roads and Wildlife Protection Act would require Caltrans and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to identify wildlife barriers and prioritize intersections when building or improving roads and highways.
By Laura Friedman, especially for CalMatters
meeting member Laura Friedman represents the 43rd Assembly District.
Many of us have never seen a cougar up close and personal, but lions are clearly present among us. From security camera footage to social media posts of P-22 — Southern California’s famed mountain lion — you might think mountain lions are doing well. You would be wrong.
Scientists fear that if their turf and gene pool continue to shrink, cougars (as they are sometimes called) could become extinct within decades in regions where they now roam. Fast cars, rat poison and a fragmented habitat are just some of the deadly challenges facing mountain lions and other endangered species. When a lion, known to biologists as P-54, was hit by a car and killed in June, her death marked three generations of mountain lions lost on dangerous roads in the Santa Monica Mountains. Her son had died months earlier and her mother died in 2018. A month later, P-89 died on the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles, becoming the fourth cougar in the area to die from car strikes in five months.
This grim reality has led me to join forces with Assembly members Ash Kalra and Kevin Mullin to enact Assembly Act 2344, allowing more wildlife to cross into our highway system. By prioritizing and investing in highway overpasses, underpasses and other critical improvements, we can make our roads safer for wildlife and motorists.
Butterflies, foxes, desert tortoises, California salamanders and other wildlife have lost their ability to move freely through their habitat due to poorly planned roads and development.
The UC Davis Road Ecology Center has monitored wildlife collisions and identified hot spots on our highways. From 2016 to 2020, more than 44,000 wildlife vehicle accidents were reported on California roads, resulting in fatalities, injuries and property damage. It is believed that collisions with wildlife are not reported.
Earlier this year, I took part in the groundbreaking celebration in Agoura Hills of the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, which will be the largest wildlife bridge in the world by 2025. A project like this should inspire us to do better across the state. Our bill, the Safe Roads and Wildlife Protection Act, would require Caltrans and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to identify wildlife barriers and prioritize intersections when building or improving roads and highways.
These projects can be as simple as improving existing culverts or installing directional fences to facilitate the movement of wildlife. They can also be overpasses and underpasses in areas with high wildlife-vehicle collisions and where the movement of endangered species is restricted.
Establishing a protocol for government agencies to collect data on road fatalities is critical to this effort. We need to be smart about allocating resources so that we can prioritize the most dangerous roads and make them safer for motorists and wildlife.
I know that my legislative colleagues believe that improving road safety is a two-pronged priority. In states ahead of California in implementing crossings, animal-vehicle collisions in crossing areas have been reduced by up to 98%. Simply put, wildlife crossing works. The question is: are public safety and environmental protection worth the investment?
Our voters would say yes, because Californians love and appreciate our state’s rich biodiversity.
A UCLA-led study published earlier this year found that reproductive signs of inbreeding in Southern California mountain lions, specifically a 93% abnormal sperm count, are much more severe than previously thought. Without safe routes for these iconic cats, the maze of highways and sprawl will only prolong genetic isolation and lead to local extinction.
It is demoralizing to witness the decline of mountain lions knowing that wildlife crossing is an effective way to help them thrive. We must not sit on that knowledge and do nothing: we must make wildlife crossing a priority.
Laura Friedman previously wrote about weapon safety and Christine Blasey Ford.